Looking back at old holiday photos can be bittersweet. Images of our younger selves smiling amid twinkling Christmas trees, hugging pink-cheeked babies that have since grown big, laughing with friends at festive parties—it can make one pleasantly nostalgic, but also a little frustrated: Why does this holiday season seem less magical than those that came before?
Part of this phenomenon must be due to our imperfect memories: Our actual experiences become a blur, particularly when the old times are resurrected with the help of pictures that inevitably highlight and reinforce the best aspects of our experiences, while allowing the not-so-great moments—the mundane chores, the petty bickering and frustrations—to fade.
Recognizing this phenomenon is useful for combatting the kind of holiday blues that emerge when one’s present seems less exciting than one’s past. But just as we need to guard against jealousy when viewing carefully scripted Facebook pages, we should recognize that our memory can also be a false marketer of the past. As we do on social media, we tend to feature our best selves and our best histories on the timelines that run in our heads and surround us in our photo albums.
It’s tempting to view our selective memories as a flaw in our design. Women sometimes discuss this in the context of childbirth. We are told that the hormones that follow childbirth help obscure memories of the painful process, which is Mother Nature’s way to trick us into reproducing again. And there is truth to this. I couldn’t recall, exactly, the unpleasantness of early pregnancy until I felt that familiar wave of car-sick nausea wash over me in the sixth week of my last pregnancy. Labor pains were an unpleasant but vague fog until they kicked in the second time, and only then did I remember exactly what I was in for.
It’s not just hormones that help in the selection process of what we remember and how vividly, but the decisions we make about what to record and share. Most parents tend not to take photos of our inconsolably crying infants, whining toddlers, and pestering children. We remember sweetly sleeping babies, their soft squishy hugs and earnest eyes, the cute outfits and all the milestones. Of course, we also remember big negative events too: the broken arms, trips cancelled due to stomach flu, and true tragedies. Simply put, we remember the big stuff, which, for the fortunate, tends to be mostly good, while allowing the drudgery of everyday life to slip away.
In this, our memory may be imperfect as a recorder of historical fact, but that is not necessarily a flaw. A steadily rolling camera gives every moment equal weight and importance, while our memories have a different, and perhaps more accurate, ability to prioritize. We know that while our time might be filled with a lot of mediocre moments, that’s not the real story of our lives.
Today, I spend much of my time picking up all the things that my one-year-old threw on the ground, fishing stray stickers and LEGO bits from his mouth, and preventing him from careening down the stairs while he hollers in protest. I doubt, though, that I’ll remember much of any of this, since it’s really hard for me to remember this stage and such days with my other kids. But I do remember how they felt sleeping on my lap, the sound of their giggles, and little faces looking up into mine.
This is a great time of year to remember that every moment of the holidays won’t be magical or perfect. That’s normal. It wasn’t last year either, and it wasn’t even two decades ago. Knowing this, we can try to accept the not-so-great times while looking forward to and savoring those times that are really special, with the wonderful knowledge that those moments aren’t just one-offs, but treasured possessions that we can visit in our mind’s eye for the rest of our lives.